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Chris Dunham — From Garret to Garage
This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
Wednesday, May 20, 1998. All rights reserved.
It’s the visual artist’s garret, 1998 urban style:
a big old red brick building, lots of dust and drafts; no heat, no
water — just a young artist, his dog, and his sculptures. That
would be Chris Dunham, formerly of Virginia, Germany, Kentucky,
and his friendly, year-old shepherd mix, "Dog Girl," both
in Dunham’s Trenton studio, where he experiments with metal work,
steaming wood, and other processes that interest him, and turns out
one unique piece of sculpture after another. About 20 of them will
be on view at Art’s Garage in Hopewell — an outre exhibition
1998 style — beginning Saturday, May 23. Housed in Art Helmke’s
Volvo repair shop, Dunham’s 7 to 10 p.m. opening reception promises
a band and a possible appearance by El Nino.
Dunham’s art studies at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, where he earned
a BFA in 1993, were more oriented toward concepts than techniques,
he says. They led him to a two-year apprenticeship at the Johnson
Atelier in Mercerville. Since then, he says, "I’ve come to think
I can do it all myself." And the varied works in his two-story
studio — nearly life-size wooden figures, palm-of-hand honeybees,
metal wall pieces, and massive, cast-iron works — attest to his
Now 26, Dunham is slightly built, with fine features and an
head of reddish hair. He makes both large and small sculptures that
are often figurative, sometimes whimsical, and may involve plays on
words — but they always represent his attempt to duplicate
from his head or his sketchbook. Dunham’s interest is in
sculpture" and believes it should be touched to be enjoyed. That’s
A large piece of maple very nearly became household firewood. Then
Dunham noticed "it was super hard, super beautiful and dry, so
I attacked it with a chain saw." It began as a male figure, he
says. "I carved the head, the shoulders, the torso. Then I
whoa, the shoulders just aren’t big enough." It is now a woman’s
figure, with eyes cast down and arms folded across her bosom. Her
long pony tail is made of wire.
Sitting on his front porch a few years ago, Dunham watched a bug
a rose leaf, and was fascinated to see it make 90-degree turns on
its surface. He drew the insect’s travel pattern in his sketchbook
and a year later, it turned up on a wall sculpture: a leaf, about
one yard high, hammered out of sheet steel. Zig-zagging around on
the leaf’s gray surface, a brass-tone path traces the bug’s creative
Although Dunham has given his show the intriguing title,
"Who Drives the Driven Man?" he’s ambivalent about titling
individual works. When he uses titles at all, he says he may change
them as his perspective on a piece changes. And knowing that everyone
sees differently anyway, he likes to think that titles are extraneous,
that his pieces will speak for themselves. "Beaching
is one named, and notable, sculpture. A sculpted bronze wave that
seems to replicate Hokusai’s familiar woodblock print image,
Wave Off Kanagawa," fills a finely-crafted, curved wooden boat
made from steamed maple and oak wood, with darker Brazilian king wood
trim. Two finny metal oars extend out from each side of the vessel,
and completing the stainless steel tripod that supports the boat,
and in place of a rudder, a bronze fishtail extends from its stern.
Describing the process of metal casting as "easy, really,"
Dunham introduces a monumental anvil, which he produced first in
and finally in cast iron. He uses materials appropriate to his
joking, for instance, about how incongruous a bronze anvil would be.
Accordingly, he made a hanging hammer-man piece from wood and steel.
"I pride myself on exploring as many different techniques as I
can," says the sculptor. One piece, made of steel, copper, silver,
and bronze, is a technical sampler: it encompasses precious
blacksmithing, foundry work, and machining, with elements both
and strong. In appearance, it suggests a combination diving bell and
casket, with a hinged door that opens to reveal a tiny cast bronze
figure of a woman.
To help support his art work, Dunham works on commissions from local
tradespeople and artists for furniture or architectural details, and
he likes it when they involve design, too. When he gets a paycheck,
he plows it and his time into his own projects for a while. And
he generally makes one-of-a-kind things, Dunham agrees that his
cast iron cat heads — or "iconic cats" — may be a
limited edition now, but if they’re popular, they’ll become "an
In one corner of the studio sits a typewriter about as big as an MG
sportscar. It’s green, it has silver letters reading
across its front, and when depressed, its keys raise a gallery of
cast aluminum figures. As they rise, these skeletal figures seem to
writhe, facing a giant "page" filled with the words,
Dunham says only that all the figures are different, and that each
is experiencing the page differently. He finds 1950s design
when "they made something, then streamlined it. But when does
a typewriter have to go 40 or 50 miles an hour?"
A green typewriter was a family fixture while he was growing up and
moving from place to place, Dunham explains. The younger of two boys
in a military family (his father was with the Army Corps of
he says he’s the "fluke" in being an artist.
There are more of his own life figures to be found in his work: Cast
in "white bronze" for a pale, pewtery look, the seated figure
of a man watches a bundle of papers (fabricated of silver sheet)
in the air, as if blowing away. Dunham remembers leaving a job he
had once: "All of a sudden I had no more paperwork, and it was
One atypical piece, combining stained glass and a bronze figure, harks
back to a stay in Japan earlier this year, when he helped build an
artist’s hot-glass studio. Planning ahead, Dunham took the figure
in his luggage, and after learning all he could, topped it with his
own etched-glass design, which he says is about religion and the soul,
without the traditional icons.
His "bee crypt" is another example of Dunham’s small, yet
finely-detailed work. Made of slate, copper, and brass, it’s a
structure that opens to reveal a carefully wrought bee coffin, about
two inches long.
Art Helmke, who started showing art and sponsoring play and poetry
readings at his garage about six years ago, calls Dunham "the
genuine article. It’s rare," he says, "to find a young guy
with vision and the ability to realize it." A man with a car
business who is also a poet, Helmke says Dunham’s "great
will be on view at least a month. "There’s no trouble putting
it here," he says. As for his repair business, "we’ll figure
that out later."
— Pat Summers
Hopewell, 609-466-0618. Opening reception. To June 27. Free.
May 23, 7 to 10 p.m.
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